A Better Read on Literacy Myths
Sharon Vaughn is a nationally acclaimed literacy expert, executive director for the College of Education’s Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk and recipient of more than $51 million in external research funding. Below, she debunks some rather common myths about how we learn to read and how literacy is taught.
- MYTH: Children will just learn to read naturally if you let them do it at their own pace and don’t rush them.
- DR. VAUGHN: Most of us learned effortlessly and don’t even remember how the process occurred. That’s definitely not the case for all children, though. About 20-30 percent of people only learn to read when they’re provided with good, effective reading instruction. That’s why it’s so critical to develop research-based strategies for reading instruction and adopt a scientific approach. We have to have a clear, accurate understanding of reading difficulties and the cognitive processes associated with them in order to create interventions that work, which is what we do here at the Meadows Center and in the Vaughn Gross Center for Reading and Language Arts.
- MYTH: Most kids learn how to read by the time they’re in third grade and after that they don’t need much more reading instruction. From then on they’re “reading to learn” rather than “learning to read.”
- DR. VAUGHN: After second grade most children do have foundation reading skills in place and they’re able to read for enjoyment and acquire information that they need or want, yes. But that’s only the beginning. If you think about all of the kinds of information that are out there, it quickly becomes clear that a student will benefit from continuing reading instruction and guidance well past second or third grade. A history textbook, instructions for a physics experiment, a Tennyson poem, an online news article and information on your prescription medicine label all require different levels of reading proficiency and different strategies for understanding. Learning these strategies and having an opportunity to practice them regularly will benefit all learners.
- MYTH: Back in the good old days, teachers did a better job of teaching reading and writing.
- DR. VAUGHN: This myth has held for decades. The truth is, teachers thought they were doing a better job and the public felt they were doing a better job because we were much less aware of the children who weren’t attaining proficiency. We have rigorous screening in place now, so we know just how many children have reading difficulties and disabilities. In Texas, for example, we screen students very early on and can intervene if there are problems. We simply now have much better techniques for detection as well as intervention.
- MYTH: If you can get a struggling reader back up to speed with a few weeks or months of intensive tutoring, those gains they make usually “stick” and last over the long-term.
- DR. VAUGHN: There’s no one answer that can be applied across the board here, but what we do know for sure is that children with significant reading difficulties require ongoing intervention for multiple years. We also know that if literacy problems aren’t caught in the earliest grades and struggling students don’t receive diagnostic, focused instruction, the effects of being behind will take multiple years to “repair.” One study has shown that intervention for students with the most intractable reading difficulties takes at least three years and that’s only when the students are paired with a highly skilled reading instructor.
We know that students enjoy stronger, more prolonged positive effects if we catch reading problems earlier, but we don’t have any research yet to show how long those effects last. We know that students who are treated early outperform other poor readers who receive no intervention, but those same students never catch up with “normal” readers. And that’s at the elementary level. For older students, the positive effects are much smaller when intervention does occur and those students almost never catch up with normal readers. The good readers’ gains simply keep getting greater and greater because they seek out more reading opportunities since they can read well – it makes sense because they’re highly motivated. The poor readers, who need the most practice, unfortunately become more and more print avoidant.
- MYTH: Dyslexia can be cured if it’s caught early enough.
- DR. VAUGHN: I think most people tend to believe that if a small child is reversing some of her letters as she’s writing – writing d’s as b’s, for example – that indicates a reading disability and that letter reversal is the best way to determine if a child is dyslexic. Good readers and writers can persistently turn certain letters the wrong way, though, when they’re first learning to write and often have incorrect letter orientation. It’s not until a child is around seven that the letter orientation becomes consistently correct. So, letter and word reversals aren’t a foolproof way of determining dyslexia and dyslexia is not an early reading problem that can be reversed. It’s a lifelong condition, the results of which can be mediated through excellent, research-based instruction, but a dyslexic individual will never read and write as fluently as a non-dyslexic.
In addition to conducting research that helps more students become better readers, the Meadows Center also generates and supports research on:
- autism spectrum disorders;
- dropout prevention;
- the instructional needs of students with math learning difficulties and disabilities;
- strategies to better prepare middle school students for high school;
- and use of the response to intervention approach to prevent learning difficulties.